Guest Blog: Councillor Bill Stevens, Chair of Planning Committee, Plymouth.
I have recently been working with numerous councils helping them look at how public speaking is managed – how long to give each speaker? what order should they go in? how to keep them to time? etc. Most recently I was asked about how committee members, particularly the new or less experienced, can listen to the cut, thrust and emotion of public speakers, and remain objective and stick to matters of planning when making a decision.
As is the PAS way, I asked someone that knows about these things – Councillor Bill Stevens, Chair of Planning Committee, Plymouth. Here’s what he told me.
As a preface to all of this we must remind ourselves of the sometimes conflicting local and political loyalties. Whilst everyone understands the political context of councillors judging planning applications, they must do the right thing and treat the process according to local and national policy etc. however hard that can be. The best Planning Committee Members/Chairs are those that have that in mind but see the wider picture and make policy-based decisions that benefit the community as a whole.
Emotions run high
The temptation for Councillors to get carried away with or emotionally ‘falling’ for what public speakers say is a very real one, especially on householder applications which deal with how individuals and families are supposedly affected day to day. The aim should be for us to get Committee Members to understand how to put comments like this in perspective. How we do that is the key!
Firstly, the thing to hammer home is that public speakers are biased. That’s not the same thing as saying that what they say is untrue though. People for and against planning applications will say what they want us to hear and it’s absolutely essential to remember we are not hearing from neutral, dispassionate people. Forgetting this is disastrous.
Secondly, our job is to consider planning applications against the local plan(s) and national statutes. If public speakers give genuine planning reasons to overturn recommendations, then fine, but that (and that alone) is what you’re looking for. We shouldn’t be afraid of going against what public speakers want.
When perspective is lost… how to approach this
I think officers, with or without committee member’s involvement, need to express concerns to the Chair(s) or possibly the Council leader if they feel that the committee is going against officer’s recommendations without strong justification/planning reasons. This is a political problem and requires political solutions. The Leader needs to be clear in their mind what they require from the Chairs and Committee members, every bit as much as they would have expectation of all other appointments.
Next, we need to ask ourselves if our Ward Councillors are working with objectors during the process from start to finish? If the first involvement objectors have is at the Planning Committee meeting, the system is failing. Ward Councillors need to be in touch with objectors throughout, liaising with the Case Officer and advising locals what may or not be achievable. It’s also good practice for Ward Councillors to liaise with the Chair (or Lead Opposition Councillor) to ensure their advice is sound. Keeping these walls up is always unhelpful.
If you are tempted….
Committee members should consider, if they’re tempted to agree with objectors, what the context is. Have they been working with Councillors? Have they met with Planning Officers? If not, why not? What advice and input comes from Planning Officers at Committee meetings? There are occasions when Councillors feel bullied or patronised into supporting officer recommendations so react against them. If that’s happening in your place, then officers will have to have a hard look at their approach.
And finally… the role of the Chair
A good Chair will appreciate their conflicting roles of championing Committee members, defending Officers’ political independence and allowing the public to feel they have a stake in the process. If Officers feel this is out of balance, they need to have fostered a strong enough relationship with the Chair to raise this.
Some really good advice here from Bill. Many councils will have new committee members just starting out and this is just the sort of advice that can help them in those early days. Please share your thoughts and ideas on this topic here.
PAS thanks Councillor Bill Stevens